WHEN IS A FISH A BRIDGE?
An investigation of Grímnismál 21.

Ţýtr Ţund,Ţund roars,
unir Ţjóđvitnisthe fish of Ţjóđvitnir
fiskr flóđi í.rests in the flood.
Árstraumr ţykirThe river-current
ofmikillseems too strong for wading
valglaumi at vađa.to the host of the slain.

Grímnismál has been said to be the most obscure of the Eddaic poems. It is first and foremost a "cosmological" poem, but couched in densely allegorical language, the interpretation of which has stumped many scholars. The above-quoted stanza is perhaps the most obscure of all, and has never been satisfactorily and consistently explained.

There are three basic problems involved, three basic questions that need to be answered. What is Ţund? Who is Ţjóđvitnir? What is the fish of Ţjóđvitnir? All commentators seem to agree that Ţund is the name of a river, and this is, indeed, obvious from the context. The name Ţjóđvitnir is usually explained as "main-wolf", i.e. Fenrisúlfur. As to what the identity of his "fish" can possibly be, the scholars are mostly silent. The Midgard-serpent has been suggested, but this is highly unlikely, as it makes no sense within the context of the stanza, and the poem as a whole.

ŢUND

This word only occurs in one other place, i.e. in the little known Bergbúaţáttur, a 13th century Skaldic poem. In stanza 4, we find the following line:

ţytr var of Ţundar Glitni,

literally: "there was roaring in the Glitnir of Ţund". Glitnir was the name of Forseti's hall (see Grímnismál 15).

This is conventionally thought to mean "there was a roaring in the mountain", and "Glitnir Ţundar" was interpreted by Finnur Jónsson to mean "the hall of the river", i.e. mountain. This can hardly be correct - as far as I know, there is no other example of a kenning of this type.

Meissner objected, with good reason, and suggested that Ţundar should be read as the genitive of Ţundr, a (lost) giant's name. "The hall of the giant" would, at least, serve as a proper kenning for mountain. But there is a major objection to Meissner's interpretation as well: Ţundr occurs frequently as a by-name of Óđinn in kennings, as well as in Grímnismál 54. "The hall of Óđinn" cannot possibly be a kenning for mountain.

I suggest we look elsewhere for a possible interpretation.

It should be noted that "ţytr" here, and "ţýtr" in the Grímnismál stanza are cognates. Both derive from the verb "ţjóta". This multifaceted verb is an interesting phenomenon. In modern Icelandic it usually means either "rush, dash" (i.e. move quickly), or "whistle, sing" (mostly used of the sound of wind or storm). In the ancient poetic language we find it used of the howling of wolves, the rushing of the ocean, the sighing of wounds, and the blowing of the winds. In fact, the complete spectrum of sounds, ranging from sigh to howl.

Ţund is, indeed, a roaring river, but I would suggest that it is a very special type of river. The etymology strongly suggests that the word is related to the English "thunder". Thunder is an atmospheric phenomenon, and this, in turn, suggests that Ţund is a term for the "atmospheric ocean". That the poets thought of the atmosphere as a river or an ocean, is apparent from Fáfnismál 15, which refers to the final battle, when Bifröst (Bilröst), the bridge which connects earth and heaven, breaks under the weight of a great army:

Bilröst brotnar,Bilröst breaks,
er ţeir á brott fara,when they depart,
ok svima í móđu marir.and horses swim in the river.
A terrestrial bridge spans a river. The celestial bridge spans the heavens. Therefore, poetic logic can easily see the atmosphere as a type of river, or ocean.

Let us assume that Ţund is the "thunder-river", or "thunder-ocean", a term for the atmosphere, or sky, spanned by the celestial bridge. Its waves are the winds, which sigh, howl, roar, blow, whistle, rush. "Ţýtr Ţund", indeed. This also allows us to interpret the line from Bergbúaţáttur in a new fashion: "Glitnir Ţundar" is not a mountain, after all. It is the sky, the hall of the atmospheric river. There is also roaring in this hall of howling winds and sighing breezes.

Footnote: It may be suggested that Jónsson was misled by the imagery of the Bergbúaţáttr, which contains frequent references to roaring mountains and booming cliffs. However, the poem also contains various references to storms, the heavens, and various atmospheric phenomena. For example, stanza 6 may be translated: "Black cliffs burst; the storm lashes against hills; strange mud wells from the earth; many giants will come forth; the sky will split; rain darkens the sky; rain will fall abundantly before the world sinks."

ŢJÓĐVITNIR

The name Ţjóđvitnir has never been satisfactorily explained, but is generally thought to refer to the Fenris-wolf. "Vitnir" can, indeed, mean "wolf", but the etymology of the word shows it to be related to the word "vit" = "sense, senses". In fact, Magnússon's Etymological Dictionary states that the original meaning of the word is "one with sharp senses". As a prefix in men's names, ţjóđ- simply means "great, powerful". Thus it seems more than likely that Ţjóđvitnir is an allegorical name for Heimdallr, the god famous for his extraordinary "enhanced" senses. According to Gylfaginning, he resides near the edge of the sky (himins endi), and guards the bridge Bifröst. His castle is named Himinbjörg, the meaning of which may be "heaven-salvation". His eyesight is phenomenal, during night as well as day. He can hear the grass grow, as well as the wool on sheep. If any divinity deserves the name of Ţjóđvitnir, "one with extremely sharp senses", Heimdallr is the one.

It should be noted, that there is much overlapping between the idea of Ţund as the "atmospheric ocean/river" and Ţjóđvitnir as Heimdallr. Ţund is the celestial river spanned by Bifröst, whose guardian Heimdallr is. Heimdall's castle is named Himinbjörg ("salvation of heaven", or, perhaps, "mountains of heaven"). He resides near the edge of the sky. The atmosphere encompasses and penetrates all creation, as do Heimdall's senses.

Footnote: This interpretation casts light on an hitherto unexplained by-name for Heimdallr: Vind(h)lér. Hlér is a known name for the ocean-god (Ćgir?). Vind- means "wind". Vindhlér might therefore mean "wind-ocean-god", i.e. "god of the ocean of winds" = "god of the atmosphere".

ŢJÓĐVITNIS FISKR

The identity of "Ţjóđvitnis fiskr" remains to be explained. Keeping in mind the allegorical nature of the poem, I will permit myself to approach this question from a new angle. In Icelandic (Old and Modern), the word "sporđr" is a term for the tail of a fish. It is also a term for the head of a bridge (cp. Sigurdrífumál 16:6 "brúar sporđi").

It is thus quite possible that an allegorical poet might refer to a bridge as a fish. This becomes even more likely, if my suggestions (above) are taken into account: i.e. that Ţund refers to the celestial/atmospheric river/ocean, and that Ţjóđvitnir is an allegorical name of Heimdallr. "Ţjóđvitnis fiskr" is thus an allegorical reference to Bifröst, the celestial bridge, which connects earth and heaven. It is Heimdall's fish/bridge, which rests in, and spans, Ţund, the (atmospheric) flood. It is the bridge, which in Fáfnismál breaks, causing the warriors' horses to "swim in the river". If this interpretation is correct, the poetic "conceit" is extremely consistent: The sky or atmosphere is described as a river. It roars (ţýtr) with the sound of wind-waves. The bridge, which spans it, is a fish that "rests in the flood", and it is also the fish of Heimdallr, who is the guardian of the bridge, and whose palace is called "the salvation of heaven". I am tempted to apply the term "nýgjörving" (extended metaphor) here, but as this term is usually only applied to Skaldic poetry, I hesitate to do so here.

Only two question remain: Does this interpretation make sense in terms of the complete stanza? Does it make sense in terms of the surrounding stanzas of Grímnismál?

It does, indeed:

Ţýtr Ţund,Ţund roars,
unir Ţjóđvitnisthe fish of Ţjóđvitnir
fiskr flóđi í.rests in the flood.
Árstraumr ţykirThe river-current
ofmikillseems too strong for wading
valglaumi at vađa.to the host of the slain.

If we accept the above conclusions, the second half of the stanza becomes clear: The currents (of the atmosphere) are too strong for wading, and therefore the slain warriors prefer the Bifröst bridge, which spans the turbulent and roaring river/ocean of the sky. For the slain, the celestial bridge must have been the easiest way to pass "Ţund", i.e. travel from the earth to the heavenly abodes of the gods (through the sky). From the Fáfnismál stanza quoted above, we know that when the bridge breaks, the horses of the warriors swim helplessly in the atmospheric river.

As for the context of this stanza within the framework of Grímnismál as a whole, it seems that the above interpretation makes much more sense than any I have seen. I don't think this particular stanza has ever been related, by scholars, to the preceding and succeeding stanzas. This interpretation enables such a connection to be made.

For the time being, I will refrain from interpreting any other Grímnismál stanzas in depth. The following overview of stanzas 18-25 should sufficiently show how stanza 21 fits into the poem's overall scheme.

Stanza 18: We are told (in obscure terms) what the "einherjar" eat in Valhöll. (The term "einherjar" refers to the slain warriors, who go to Valhöll after death.)

Stanza 19: We are told that Óđinn needs no such food, he only needs to drink the "one wine". He apparently receives a portion of the food (mentioned in stanza 18), but he gives it to his two wolves. (In the poetic language, wolves are carrion-eaters, and Óđinn is valföđr, the god of the slain. Therefore the morsels Óđinn throws to his wolves are allegorically the corpses of the slain warriors themselves. This is supported by numerous kennings in which slain warriors are referred to as the food of eagles and ravens.)

Stanza 20: We are told that Óđinn worries that his two ravens won't return. (In the poetic language, ravens are carrion-eaters (like wolves). Óđinn's worry is that the ravens won't return, because of the wealth of slain warriors' corpses to be eaten.)

[Stanzas 18-20 all refer to the slain (valr), who become einherjar, as soon as the reach Valhöll. They are the food of wolves and ravens.]

STANZA 21: Here we have an allegorical description of the ascent of the slain warriors. They ascend via the celestial bridge (Bifröst), because the raging currents of the atmospheric ocean are too strong.

Stanza 22: Here we have a description of Valgrind ("the door of the slain"). Valgrind is a term for the entrance-gate of Valhöll. The slain warriors have ascended Bifröst, and reached the entrance to Óđinn's palace.

Stanzas 23-24: We enter Valhöll, and learn of the multitudes of "einherjar", who reside there.

Stanzas 25: We climb up to the roof of Valhöll. Here we find a goat, which produces the "clear mead" (skírr mjöđr), which is presumably identical with the "one wine", which Óđinn drinks in stanza 19. The allegorical serpent has bitten its tail, the imagery has come full circle.

This short treatment is not the place to discuss the allegorical terms of the whole of Grímnismál. I have offered a new interpretation of stanza 21, attempting to show that it concerns the ascent of the celestial bridge by slain warriors (valr, valglaumr). I have shown how this stanza fits neatly into the stream of ideas expressed by the poet (slain warriorsbridgegateValhölleinherjar), and I have shown that Ţund may have been a term for the sky-as-river, and Ţjóđvitnir one of Heimdall's names, and that Ţjóđvitnis fiskr (Heimdall's fish) is best interpreted as an allegorical term for Bifröst, the celestial bridge - a conclusion supported by the subject of the stanza itself, as well as the context of the surrounding stanzas.

Reykjavík, April 27, 2000.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This article was inspired by an insight found in Chapter 93 of Viktor Rydberg's "Undersökningar i Germanisk Mythologi", Vol 1. As far as I know, Rydberg was the first (and only) scholar to observe that "Ţjóđvitnis fiskr" is an allegorical term for the celestial bridge, although he was unable to sufficiently support his insight. It is my hope that I have succeeded in supplying the needed support.

During my investigation of the Grímnismál stanza I have used the following sources:

Briem, Ólafur (ed.): Eddukvćđi (Reykjavík: Skálholt 1968).
Böđvarsson, Árni: Íslensk Orđabók [2. edition] (Reykjavík: Menningarsjóđur 1983).
Egilsson, Sveinbjörn: Lexicon Poeticum (1916; revised ed. [by Finnur Jónsson] Copenhagen: Lynge 1966).
Jónsson, Finnur: Den Norsk-Islandske Skjaldedigtning [4 vols] (Copenhagen: Villadsen & Christensen 1912-1915).
Helgason, Jón: Eddadigte I - III [2. edition] (Oslo: Dreyers Forlag 1971).
Magnússon, Ásgeir Blöndal: Íslensk Orđsifjabók (Reykjavík: Orđabók Háskólans 1989).
Meissner, Rudolf: Die Kenningar der Skalden (Bonn & Leipzig: Kurt Schroeder 1921).
Pálsson, Heimir (ed.): Snorra Edda (Reykjavík: Mál & Menning 1984).
Rydberg, Viktor: Undersökningar i Germanisk Mythologi [2 vols.] (Stockholm: Bonniers 1886-1889).